Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pimping the Cleric Part 1 (Rituals)

Clerics are the stepchild of D&D. So much so that I read several times it should be dismissed as a class. And I agree in as far as it is a very difficult class to do right. This is where I see the main problem: A fighter has his choice of weapons and armor to define him, a magic-user has his choice of spells and a thief, even simpler, has a set of skills. Set your priorities and your done. Not so much the cleric. He's not defined by his choice of weapons or spells, he's defined by a God.

In this series of posts I will offer some ideas and house rules to make the OD&D cleric a more worthwhile (and visible) class.

What to do about it?

The easy way out was always to use the cleric as fighter support and/or heal-bot. Using him only for that makes it a very unrewarding class to play. Makes the player feel like taking a bullet for the team. I've been trying to get away from this since we started playing Rules Cyclopedia.

First part of the solution, although I didn't realize at the time, was to allow a dwarven cleric as a class. In retrospect it's quite easy to see why that worked. The God worshiped being the God of the dwarves made it easy for the player to emulate that as a believe. Which means, he didn't have to alter his perception of what it means to be a dwarf to be a cleric for them. But the player mostly criticized the lack of spells on level 1 and the weak development later. It needed one more change to make him happy.

So the second part was to allow sacrifices. Inspiration was the (excellent, but canceled) tv show Rome. In one episode one of the main characters, Lucius Vorenus (an officer of the roman army), gets his blessings in a temple. An ox is sacrificed and Lucius is bathed in the blood. They are pretty accurate about the multicultural daily life in Rome and the effects of polytheism. In addition to this scene, there are on a regular basis little shrines or cultists roaming the streets. It gave a good impression of how important those small rituals (and religions in general) were at the time. Clerics were a vital part of society. And mostly strange individuals with odd opinions and weird clothes. Here is what we did:

Sacrifices in D&D

An ox about to be sacrificed (source: Wikipedia).
What counts as a sacrifice depends on the individual believe and can be everything from treasure to creatures (alignment should be an indicator here). The ritual is concluded with a successful WIS-check (which may get bonuses for ritual knifes, oils or other materials, inferior materials will result in penalties, a critical failure means the cleric somehow insulted his God, etc.).
Whatever is used for the sacrifice, is always useless after the ritual (destroyed, buried, vanished in thin air, the DM is to decide what works best in his campaign). If the God accepted the sacrifice, a cleric gets at least 1 point Gratitude. This is cumulative as long as the cleric keeps a regular schedule of additional prayers (that is, the player mentions it in the game). Gratitude may be tested with a d100 in times of need. If successful, a minor wonder happens to aid the cleric. If a wonder occurs, Gratitude is reset to 0.
The value of the sacrifice defines the points in Gratitude a player might get gets. Every 500 gp or 1 HD are worth one point of gratitude. The worthiness of the offer in Gratitude Points, divided by the cleric's level is the duration of the ritual in days (but at least an hour).
Every true convert to the clerics believe is worth one point of Gratitude (assuming that the player put some work into it, makes a WIS-check unnecessary).
When using a shrine, altar or temple for the sacrifice, the cleric needs to state his intent. Pure devotion is for the benefit of the holy place*, seeking a blessing for a future endeavor is for Gratitude Points.
If he wants to use Gratitude points to help a fellow players, the penalty on the d100 is -25 for non-believers, -10 for casual believers and -5 for true believers. All points are lost, if the wonder occurs.
One try per situation is advised. A second try in the same situation is allowed (with a -10 penalty), but all points are lost, even if no wonder occurs.

It's a house rule we use for some time now and it worked like a charm. To get gratitude points, the player made very clear what he needed from the other players. He even converted two of them in the process. With a little tweak in the system, his god's name became a visible part of the Game and enhanced the overall experience.

There are some wider implications for the Game a DM might consider. For instance, knowing what kind of sacrifices are needed for an evil cult, could give some hints for the players about what they are dealing with. Or the magnitude of the ritual. In a more investigation oriented game, some stolen relics could hint towards the cult behind it and what kind of ritual is planned.

By the by, an impressive number of small cults to make the groups live more interesting and give some ideas what they might need for their rituals, is (of course) the Petty Gods Project.

Next up will be a selection of cleric spells, some mechanics for holy sites and I guess I'll write up the dwarven cleric we used in our Game to conclude the series.

*This will be part of another post. Basically it will effect the power of a holy site. Something that is not very much explored in the game.


  1. In Oriental Adventures, Wu Jen have to choose special vows as they go up in level. Things like never cutting their hair, never lighting a fire, never touching a dead body, always giving hospitality to strangers, making a small sacrifice every morning, spending at least four hours a day in prayer. If they violate a taboo, they lose their spell-casting powers until they've made suitable atonement (sacrifice).

    I think that makes an excellent cleric mechanic. It introduces a spiritual component into the game, but in the form of hard and fast rules rather than nebulous roleplaying restrictions. It defines the cleric's religion in a way that leaves the player free to roleplay the other aspects of their character however they like - they just have to make sure they don't break their vows.

    1. Thanks! That's what I was aiming for. I'm not here to tell people how they have to play their believes. In our game the mechanic felt necessary, though. And it worked in making the cleric more active in his role.

      Those Wu Jen give an excellent example how this could work (if the player is the one coming up with the restrictions, that is, he wants to play it that way...) without killing a cow every now and then. Say, he burns some incense (somewhat expensive or hard to come by, maybe) and keeps up his routine, I'd give the character his Gratitude Points (after a successful WIS-Check). But taking away their powers is somewhat harsh. After a fumble, maybe? But yeah, you're definitely right, I'm not a fan of nebulous roleplaying restrictions, either.

    2. Sorry, I just realized you might in your second paragraph still talk about the Wu Jen. Are you? (It would be a bit contradictory though, because it describes what I think are roleplaying restrictions, not a mechanic...)

    3. I was talking about the Wu Jen, but it applies equally to your mechanic. I brought Wu Jen up because it's a similar sort of idea that I've used in the past with some success. I think that any mechanic like yours that nails down the spiritual side of the cleric to some concrete rules is an excellent idea.

      Wu Jen make up their own restrictions, yeah. I don't consider it a nebulous roleplaying restriction because, at least the way we used it, it consisted of flat behavioural rules. "Don't touch a corpse or you'll lose your powers" is about as much a roleplaying restriction as "don't touch a fire or you'll take D6 damage", as opposed to something like a paladin's compulsion to "be good", whatever that means. In our case, the penalty wasn't too onerous because everyone picked vows they liked and nobody ever broke them anyway, but obviously a reward system like yours has certain benefits.

    4. Okay, I see what you mean (I didn't call it "nebulous" for that reason). And I have to agree, if the players chose those restrictions, it works (a bit) like weapon restrictions do (right?). In that regard one could consider it a mechanic. Looking at the greater picture (which it not necessarily needs in the Game, but anyway), I like to have some underlying structure that explains it in an abstract way. So what I tried to do is an abstract mechanic able to "explain it all", the Wu Jen concept is more something setting-specific (and I'm sure it works very well at that). That's why I got a bit unsure what you meant.

      Thanks for contributing and clearing it up! There is definitely more to be said about how a system is supposed to work or where it lacks (house rules being a symptom of that) and I'm starting to believe that the whole setting specific rules from AD&D onwards tried to mask what the core rules failed to achieve. Sometimes, as is the case with the Wu Jen (like you used them), this works really good. Sometimes you get Bladesingers. Food for thought, thanks again.

  2. Well said. DnD does need more PC-initiated sacrifices...

    1. It's rather not player-initiated, but a mechanic to be used to the extent the players and the DM feel comfortable. That's the point. As far as I'm aware, there is no concept of what a shrine is or how devotion is "measurable" in D&D (as hp are, for instance). And that in a Game that totally relies on those things (the gods are real and all that). Or is it all just flavor text?

      So what I was asking myself for some time now, is: What does it really mean if there's an evil shrine in a dungeon? How important is it for a cleric to believe in his god or is the struggles between the powers that be just something that happens outside the rules? Is it something you're supposed to just roleplay (the thief would be happy if it was like that for thieving skills)? Or does it need a mechanic to allow it a presence in the game (because, you know, if they have to "roleplay" it, D&D is the wrong Game)? And I don't mean the spells, they're just tools that lacked somewhere else in the game. Another argument would be that it gives the DM some guidelines what works how in a setting and the implications it has.

      I hope I didn't threaten any religious sensibilities with this, though...

    2. Didn't cause me to go clutching at my pearls! I like this idea, and I like the way this mechanic fosters a player driven fleshing out of the campaign.
      "I want to make a sacrifice"
      "Ok, what do you want to sacrifice and how do you want to do it?
      "Uhhh... My god is a god of war, so a warhorse, with a ritual sword."
      Bam instant info about the god of war.

    3. Really good to know. Didn't get any hate mails either. And thanks! That's what I was aiming for. The more the players are involved, the better. The whole spiritual character of the class is far too easy neglected. One of my players had actually to ask every session what the name of his clerics god was. It's that detached.


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